City of Thieves by David Benioff
Finished on March 8, 2016
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
From the critically acclaimed author of The 25th Hour, a captivating novel about war, courage, survival--and a remarkable friendship that ripples across a lifetime.
Stumped by a magazine assignment to write about his own uneventful life, a man visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. Reluctantly, his grandfather commences a story that will take him almost a week to tell: an odyssey of two young men determined to survive, against desperate odds, a mission in which cold, hunger, and the Russian authorities proves as dangerous as the invading Wehrmacht.
Two young men meeting for the first time in a jail cell await summary execution for crimes of dubious legitimacy. At seventeen, Lev Beniov considers himself "built for deprivation." Small, smart, insecure about his virginity, he's terrified about the sentence that awaits him and his cellmate, the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier charged with desertion. However, instead of a bullet in the back of the head, the pair is given an outrageous assignment: In a besieged city cut off from all supplies, secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible in five days' time, a quest that propels them from the lawless streets of Leningrad to the devastated countryside behind German lines. As they encounter murderous city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and finally the German army itself, an unlikely bond forms between this earnest teenager and his unpredictable companion, a lothario whose maddening, and endearing, bravura will either advance their cause or get them killed.
Hailed for his brilliantly drawn characters and incisive ability to capture the pulse of urban life, David Benioff rises to new heights in this portrait of two unforgettable young men and Soviet Russia under siege. By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves takes us on a breathtaking journey into the twentieth century's darkest hour even as it celebrates the power of friendship to transform a life.
My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen. I don't remember anyone telling me--it was something I always seemed to know, the way I knew the Yankees wore pinstripes for home games and gray for the road. But I wasn't born with the knowledge. Who told me? Not my father, who never shared secrets, or my mother, who shied away from mentioning the unpleasant, all things bloody, cancerous, or deformed. Not my grandmother, who knew every folktale from the old country--headed by witches--but never spoke about the war in my hearing. And certainly not my grandfather himself, the smiling watchman of my earliest memories, the quiet, black-eyed, slender man who held my hand as we crossed the avenues, who sat on a park bench reading his Russian newspaper while I chased pigeons and harassed sugar ants with broken twigs.And so begins our tale.
Tense. Humorous. Touching. Unforgettable. This is by far one of the best novels about World War II that I've read this year or, for that matter, in many years. I loved Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Kristen Hannah's The Nightingale and Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller, but Benioff's is the best of the best. I've had the book on a shelf for several years and I'm so glad I finally decided to give it a go. If you have not yet read City of Thieves, I urge you to get a copy. You won't be disappointed.
You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier--all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages--eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.
The boy sold what people called library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city's books were disappearing like the pigeons.On compartmentalizing:
That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water or something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.On friendship:
I heard the bedsprings creaking and looked up to see Kolya leaning over the side of the top mattress, his upside-down face peering at me, his blond hair hanging in filthy clumps. He looked like he was worried about me, and all at once I felt like crying. The only one left who knew how frightened I was, the only one who knew I was still alive and that I might die tonight, was a boastful deserter I'd met three nights before, a stranger, a child of Cossacks, my last friend.Final Thoughts:
City of Thieves is a beautifully written novel by an amazing storyteller! I read the last few chapters very slowly, trying to savor the details, not wanting to say goodbye to Lev and Kolya. Excellent novel! Highly recommend.